When Can the Police Impound My Car?
There are many reasons why law enforcement might impound a vehicle, and not all of them require a crime to be committed.
Getting a car back from an impound lot can be frustrating, especially when you believe you have done nothing wrong. There are a number of situations, included in those detailed below, in which you may want to appeal the impoundment.
Your Car Is/Contains Evidence of a Crime
When a person is legally arrested as a criminal suspect, law enforcement may conduct a “search incident to arrest” in an effort to retrieve evidence of the crime. When officers suspect evidence is stored in a vehicle but cannot “readily” remove it at the scene, the vehicle may be impounded and searched at a later time.
Other times, in cases of reckless driving or vehicular manslaughter, police can impound a vehicle to preserve evidence.
Your Car Presents a Safety Hazard
Police have the right to remove a vehicle from an area if they believe its presence creates a public danger. This will generally take place when:
- The vehicle is impeding traffic and has no available driver;
- The vehicle otherwise presents a danger to public safety (due to broken glass, leaking fluid, etc.); or
- Moving the car will prevent threat of vandalism and/or theft.
For example, if a driver is arrested for DUI on a public road, law enforcement can impound his or her car if there are no other drivers available.
After Your Car Is Impounded
Once a vehicle is in a police impound lot, an “inventory search” may legally be conducted. This search doesn’t require a warrant or probable cause because it technically isn’t a search for evidence. These searches have been upheld by courts on the theory that police should be able to search a vehicle to protect its owner from theft and to protect themselves from claims of theft. Officers should also be able to search for anything that may endanger them, such as weapons or explosives.
Fighting Police Vehicle Searches
If the police conduct an inventory search of an impounded car and find evidence of a crime inside, the owner of the car may want to contest the search. If a car owner can show that officers acted unreasonably or in bad faith (by purposely breaking the law to impound the vehicle, for example), it’s possible for all evidence found after impound to be thrown out of the case.
You may want to contest a vehicle impoundment when:
- Your vehicle wasn’t legally impounded;
- The impoundment wasn’t necessary, as the vehicle could have safely remained where it was or a friend, family member, or acquaintance was available to take custody of it;
- The scope of the inventory search went beyond theft prevention (law enforcement looked under seats, inside lining, etc.);
- It is clear the police only impounded the car to perform an inventory search because they had no probable cause to search the vehicle at the scene.
Contacting an Attorney
If you believe your vehicle has been unlawfully impounded or searched illegally as a result of being impounded, a criminal defense attorney may be able to assist you. Berry Law Firm has been defending the Constitutional rights of clients since 1965, and its team of lawyers has over 100 years of cumulative experience defending clients in court.